Saving Mr. Banks (2013): A Movie Review

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Rating: 4/5

This movie awards season has been particularly controversial. Saving Mr. Banks is one of those films that, even with a generic, feel-good premise, has experienced controversy over the perceived accuracy of their characterization of Walt Disney, the late, major Hollywood player, and their portrayal of the historical events that led to the film Mary Poppins. In fairness to them, people involved in the film have been open about the liberties taken and the looseness of their interpretation of events, instead focusing on telling a particular type of story. Because of the beautiful way they achieved telling that story, I can overcome these historical inaccuracies (if they are so) and enjoy the movie as a whole. I feel like others should as well.

There are really two major things that Saving Mr. Banks has going for it. The first is the spot-on, heartwarming performances from its cast – from leads Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson (especially), to smaller characters like Paul Giamatti and Bradley Whitford. While compared to other Oscar-season films their roles may not be as meaty, they did really well with what they had and completely owned their parts.

The second thing it has going for it is that, while the actors embraced and owned their roles, the movie itself embraced and owned the heartwarming, nostalgic factor of the story. Many films would be saved by doing the same instead of trying to overcomplicate or overdramatize their stories. Instead, Mr. Banks is a highly self-aware and confident film – it knows what it wants to be and, thus, is able to do so in a fantastic fashion.

While some of the elements of the flashbacks (a huge part of the story) were clumsily handled, most of Saving Mr. Banks is well-plotted and well-shot. The sounds and imagery also added to the overall feel of the film.

What Saving Mr. Banks lacks in historical accuracy it makes up for in solid scriptwriting and great performances. It also provides interesting insight into the power dynamics in major filmmaking. Of equal importance, it is a movie that will evoke positive memories and emotions from its audience. It deserves to be taken on these terms. And, on these terms, Saving Mr. Banks is triumphant.

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Diana (2013): A Movie Review

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Rating: 1/5

For all the talent that Naomi Watts possesses, it’s highly disappointing that she is in yet another clunker with this movie – the last movie I watched of hers, Adore, was the worst movie of 2013 for me. It’s early in the year yet for Diana, but I hope that this is the worst of this year as well because it was awfully painful to watch.

The first issue with Diana is that the script is unbelievably boring and composed of minute, non-cohesive snippets. While focusing on Diana’s affair with Hasnat Khan and her jump into a more visible humanitarian presence should be interesting, the script never feels like it comes together enough to seamlessly connect the two. What’s worse is that neither aspect is really well-plotted in the movie. At times, it was confusing, but mostly you just couldn’t muster up enough excitement to care.

As poor as the script was, the directing was equally as bad. It is impossible to understand how a film on one of the most interesting women in the past few decades could have such little verve and so few iconic scenes. I especially hated how the director handled the beginning of the movie because it just did not make sense, did not add anything to the movie and, in fact, made it look cheaper than it should be.

I wouldn’t say that the acting was horrible, but nobody in this film had anything good to work with, especially with some of the terrible lines they had to utter. Terrible lines also lent itself to terrible characterization. Diana came off as equally “besotted schoolgirl”, “passionate do-gooder” and “sort-of-psychotic partner”. In real life, she may have been all or none of these things, as all personalities are complex. But the transitions between these character traits need to be believable and need to be rooted in something. By not putting an effort into doing this, the film sadly maintains Diana as a caricature of a character, rather than humanizing her and telling her story the way they probably wanted to.

Everything about Diana felt like a high-school film project, with its laughably bad script, boring and sometimes unfathomable directing choices, stilted dialogue and acting, and very poor attempts at characterization. A fan or not of the late princess, you owe it to yourself to skip this one.

Her: A Movie Review

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Rating: 4.5/5

Halfway through Her, you are struck by both the sweetness and the sadness of its story. You find yourself both uncomfortable with the central relationship and quite eagerly rooting for the happiness of the characters. It is in the able dichotomies evident in Her, which by all accounts can be a simplistic story, that the film shows its mastery.

Importantly, even with the simplistic core of the story, Her manages to raise many interesting questions – much more so than many of the movies touted for the upcoming Oscar race. For myself, I found myself wondering mostly about what constitutes a relationship, romantic or not – with technology, yes, but even taking aspects of that relationship with other humans. I found myself wondering about the essence of knowledge and of being. And i found myself wondering about how interaction is defined- by myself and by society. All these questions cause Her to stay in your mind long after you leave the theatre.

For that, credit needs to be given to the brilliant mind of Spike Jonze, who both wrote and directed it. Credit also needs to be given to the perfect performance by Joaquin Phoenix, the understatedly great performance by Amy Adams and the risky voice work done by Scarlett Johansson, all of whom inject believability and empathy into the story.

Her is buoyed by one of the most interesting concepts in film this year tackled in a non-formulaic way. It is also visually stunning from its scenery to its costume choices. Everything seems well thought out. While at times the script veered into convenience, which lets down the movie a bit, Her manages as a whole to remain solidly and believably plotted. It is deserving of its awards buzz.

2014 Films

1. Short Term 12

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

3. Her

4. Saving Mr. Banks

5. Vampire Academy

6. The Lego Movie

7. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

8. August: Osage County

9. Inside Llewyn Davis

10. The Wind Rises

11. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

12. Grudge Match

13. Devil’s Knot

14. Diana

Worst Performances – 2013 Film

1. Gemma Arterton, Unfinished Song

2. Emory Cohen, The Place Beyond the Pines

3. Alexandra Daddario, Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters

4. Kat Dennings, Thor: The Dark World

5. Alice Englert, Beautiful Creatures

6. Godfrey Gao, The Mortal Instruments

7. Ryan Kwanten, The Right Kind of Wrong

8. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, The Mortal Instruments

 

 

Favourite Performances – 2013 Films

For this post, I will only mention those released in 2013 from the full slate of movies I watched this year. This is also in alphabetical order.

 

1. Onata Aprile, What Maisie Knew

2. Christian Bale, American Hustle

3. Elizabeth Banks, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

4. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

5. Steve Coogan, Philomena

6. Judi Dench, Philomena

7. Bruce Dern, Nebraska

8. Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man 3

9. Will Forte, Nebraska

10. Allison Janney, The Way, Way Back

11. Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

12. Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

13. Jena Malone, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

14. Sam Rockwell, The Way, Way Back

15. Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now

 

Movie: American Hustle (2013)

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Rating: 4.5/5

In American Hustle, the art of conning people, both personally and professionally, is front and centre. The heavy satirical elements of American Hustle indicate that the movie, in itself, gleefully pulls the wool over their audiences’ eyes, leaving them brilliantly dazed and confused, but always entertained.

The humour comes in the form of the ridiculous, entangled situations the hapless yet loveable characters find themselves in. At many points, it is unrealistic, but the film never bothers with reality, and so, as the viewer, you find it easy to suspend your disbelief and instead laugh and commiserate along with them. However, most of the humour works simply because of the gravitas of the actors behind these characters, all of whom could easily have been simple clichés.

Christian Bale is the sleazy con-man, yes, but this con-man seems to wallow in his do-gooder and people-pleasing persona which does get him and his cons enmeshed in some bad stuff. Amy Adams is the social-climbing vixen, but it has more to do with her self-worth than materialistic trappings. Bradley Cooper is the highly-ambitious and motivated cop, but there’s so much instability in him that honestly it never seems like he has any control of the situation. Jennifer Lawrence is the firecracker, the ditzy housewife with a big mouth, but there’s soul and a well of emotion behind all of what she says and does – the need to be loved and the need to matter. If anything, Jeremy Renner’s character remains a cliché, as the straight-laced politician, but quite frankly his character is necessary in this melee of characters as sort of the grounding force among them all.

While the game of conning is at the centre of the film, it is these wonderfully flawed and well thought out characters, and the great acting performances behind them that really make American Hustle sizzle.  So while it can often get ridiculous, it never gets tiresome: you always care about these characters, whether in a positive or negative way. David O. Russell is able to up the crazy by relying on his characters and his actors to produce the heart of the film.

American Hustle is brash, unapologetic, and revels in its own craziness in such a way that is sure to divide audiences between those who find it hilarious and enjoyable, and those who leave the theatre confused and empty. That’s the beauty of the film, however, that it basically could care less which side you fall on – it stands its ground based on its director’s vision and its stunning cast’s juicy interpretation of their highly-flawed, yet ultimately sympathetic, characters. It is for this bravery, and for the incredible performances, that American Hustle succeeds in becoming one of the most interesting and, yes, enjoyable films of the year.

Full Catching Fire Review Part 2: Scene by Scene Breakdown – Up to the Victory Tour [SO MANY SPOILERS!]

Fair warning — this is highly, highly full of spoilers — in fact, the whole post is a giant spoiler. Please don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie. I’ve seen it four times in theatres so this post is likely to be high on details.

Katniss and Post-Traumatic Stress

It’s not so often that the opening scene in a movie rips your heart out so totally and fully, but that’s what Catching Fire managed to do [side note: your heart never fully recovers through the 2:26 hour movie]. The movie opens with Katniss looking off into the distance, obviously still dealing with the trauma she faced in the 74th Games. The depth of emotion shown by Jennifer Lawrence in this one shot alone should have been a sign to us all of the greatness of her overall performance. It is in this same opening scene, when she and Gale go off to hunt together, that the realities of the post-traumatic stress that Katniss is dealing with is really portrayed (heavily, and well I might add) to the audience when Katniss hallucinates/flashes back to her killing of Marvel in the Games just as she is about to shoot a turkey.

I loved it for several reasons. First, I loved the juxtaposition to the line said in the first movie by Gale about how killing a person is really no different than killing an animal — obviously, there’s a huge difference and Katniss’ struggles point to that. However, the mechanics are the same, and the Hunger Games in general forces these competitors to blur the lines even more.

Second, I absolutely loved how Jennifer portrayed Katniss in this scene. I believe she absolutely nailed it — the fear, the sudden onslaught of emotion, the confusion, how shook up she was at the end. Literally, this probably took less than a minute in the film, but the message and the emotions were clear as day. The Games have a huge impact — we, as an audience, cannot forget about the horrors Katniss and Peeta witnessed and partook in. We also cannot forget about the humanity at the core of these movies — these characters are told to be warriors, and while they may come out victorious, they are humans underneath it all.

Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch Before the Games 

When Katniss goes to wake Haymitch up before the cameras get there, it was a scene that provided three pivotal points for me. First, it was a great way to break up the drama and the tension by adding a bit of comedy to the setting. Second, the dynamic between the three victors of District 12 were evident from this very early scene. Being at the centre really of the series as a trio, I loved how they set it up early on in the second movie. Finally, this was the point where I was pleasantly surprised at how much they were keeping from the book into the movie in terms of actual scenes and dialogue. I couldn’t help thinking that this was one of those scenes Gary Ross would have found “unnecessary” in the first film and would never have been filmed. Throughout Catching Fire, they’d keep more of the book in (that’s for another post) but this was the first instance where I was cheered up by this prospect.

Snow and Katniss Meeting

Is there anything better as a Hunger Games fan than seeing Donald Sutherland and Jennifer Lawrence directly play off each other? Apart from the obvious implications for the storyline of this visit, I felt that both actors did very well in highlighting the tension, fear, plotting, and on Snow’s part some grudging respect for Katniss. One of the things I love about the series in general is this interplay between these two characters of such different backgrounds and of such different levels of power – and yet they are so evenly matched. One can tell that Snow/Sutherland feels the same way in this scene. Snow’s threat of the casualties of war was eerily prescient of what is to come. Meanwhile, Katniss starts to show early on why, even if she will reluctantly do it, her courage and compassion for people, will push her to fight for them in whatever way she can. Frankly, as a character study of Katniss, it is this that sets her apart from someone like Gale or even Peeta, but that’s for another post.

Katniss and Peeta for the Cameras

In this scene, Katniss and Peeta need to act out some weird scene for the cameras as Ceasar Flickerman checks in on them on the eve of the Victory Tour. Despite the lack of Peeta’s missing leg (does that even make sense?), Francis Lawrence stays true, once again, to the book and gets them to tumble to the ground together. While there, Katniss plants a fake kiss on Peeta and they both play the coy, embarrassed lovers really well here. This scene is great because Stanley Tucci makes his first appearance – his performance in this series as a whole, and how it elevates the role even from the book, is severely underrated and under-appreciated. As well, I really liked this scene because somehow, someway, Jennifer Lawrence is able to play up the giggly, lovesick school girl in a doubly convincing way — you can see how she convinces everyone in the Capitol about their love,but you can also see from our perspective how much of an act it really is. Seriously, if that description even makes sense — it is an extraordinary piece of mind-f**k greatness.

The Victory Tour

Absolutely and undoubtedly my favourite set of scenes in the entire series thus far. Brilliantly shot, intensely acted and visually awe-inspiring. The score also added to the emotions of the victory tour. I loved every single bit about it. In District 11, we start to feel this impending sense of doom that this victory tour will not really be that celebratory after all. Katniss’ speech about Rue floored me with its true emotion. Going forward, I loved the little pieces they added to the different districts: the quiet rebellion in one, the anger from the districts when Katniss and Peeta resolutely stick to the script, the eery way Katniss says “Panem today, Panem tomorrow, Panem forever”, and finally the also eery juxtaposition of celebrity worship with the current status of Jennifer Lawrence when the little girl adoringly tells Katniss that when she grows up she want to volunteer just like her. You can tell from these scenes just how far Katniss’ impact can be felt.

Victory Tour at the Capitol

As the Victory Tour hits the Capitol, Katniss and Peeta are welcomed at the Presidential Palace for a party in their honour. The scenery, costumes and overall cinematography of this scene really popped. This scene was also incredible because it’s Effie/Elizabeth Banks at her finest. Apparently she ad-libbed some of her memorable lines from that scene as a homage to the fans, further proof that she’s one of the best things about the franchise – a respected actress who gets it. I also love that they kept the part where they show that Capitol citizens willingly make themselves sick just so they can stuff more in. I felt like this was an incredibly powerful part of the book that showed the casual depravity of life in the Capitol and I was happy that they included it.

Full Catching Fire Review Part 1: Pre-Film

Pre-Film: Expectations, Marketing, Trailers

It was interesting, in the months leading up to Catching Fire’s release, to hear what people outside the fandom were saying about the upcoming adaptation of what is my personal favourite book of the trilogy. Initially, I was pretty confident about its successful move to the big-screen given just how rich I felt the plot of the second book really was. Seeing other people call it the weakest story of the bunch, however, and derivative of the first book, made me nervous about its reception and exactly how filmmakers would avoid it being too repetitive of the first movie.

Quite frankly, I feel that the marketing lead-up to Catching Fire, which by virtue of the space between the two movies ultimately had to stretch out to 18 months, with most of the work done in the last three months, was one of the most well-thought-out, clearly planned and successful campaigns I’ve ever seen a film studio do for a movie, with nary a misstep.

Stills released highlighted the more vibrant colours of the next instalment as well as its improved aesthetics and new cast members while still being married to the character arc and journey of Katniss Everdeen. Nothing ever felt like it was giving away too much of the movie. I’m not an art-lover, but even if I didn’t particularly like the style of the Capitol portraits, or the style of that one poster with Katniss on a cliff, I felt that it was a bold move for the marketing team to make, and something that made these images stand out and seem even more caricature-ish as developed by the Capitol. I liked seeing the arena outfits simply because I was worried about how they would look and these showed me that they had made them look futuristic and functional, exactly how they should look. Finally, I especially loved the look that they gave Katniss in a lot of their posters — fiery with her hair down. My sister said they, in a way, sexualized Katniss. I disagree — I feel like it highlighted her vulnerability and her more chaotic and scary environment. Turns out, from an interview with Tim Palen, that it was to signify her becoming more of a warrior. Nevertheless, I love the visual and I feel like it helped draw casual fans to the movie. 

Likewise, I felt like the trailers worked equally as well — I loved that the last line always pointed to the less black-and-white reading of the stakes, alliances and revolution at the centre of the series (“remember who the enemy is”).

That being said, the whole “meta” element of the marketing of these movies, while undoubtedly true, also makes me uncomfortable because, in a way, I feel that it is highly untruthful to the reason why these tie-in product placements are made: profit. For me, I understand it. I don’t always like it — there are certain things which I will buy into (shirts) and others that I will never approve of (theme park), but I understand that the reality is that movies are money-making ventures. Even those vaunted indie films that actors seem so high up on want to make money — if they could sell products along with these movies that would bring them high profitability, don’t think that they wouldn’t do it. Catching Fire and the Hunger Games series in general is not immune to this desire, regardless of its very apt and strong commentary against this kind of consumerism of celebrity culture. While I love everything about how the studio has marketed this franchise, I wish they were slightly more honest on this regard.

Movie: Frances Ha (2013)

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Rating: 3.25/5

Frances Ha, on its surface, is one of those great coming-of-age stories, well-directed, well-acted with a structurally sound plot. I enjoyed the more unique take on filmmaking that was unique and experimental in it’s totally frill-less, character-driven way. For these many reasons, I expected to truly love Frances Ha. Instead, I found myself being both bored and irritated at several points. It’s a good movie, but it’s not something I particularly enjoyed.

There are a number of reasons for this, but one major one: the unrealistic, quirky hipster at the centre of the film. I don’t need to like a protagonist in order to like a movie. I’ve seen plenty where I’ve hated them but still appreciated their role in the film. In Frances Ha, even with good acting by Greta Gerwig, I could not muster a single strong emotion about her character (utterly based on characterization) other than mild irritation. Frances is flawed, like many good characters are, but not in a way that makes her interesting, captivating or someone you can root for. Neither are her flaws big enough for her to become an antihero. What’s worse is that her characterization renders her almost fully unrealistic, borne out of the minds of hipster/artist writers who believe their own hype and quirkiness. Many of the other characters are more likeable but are no more realistic and no less borne out of the hipster collective. The fact that the film takes itself so seriously does nothing to allay the irritation at these characters.

That’s not to take away from the film’s many triumphs. Even while disliking/not feeling anything for her character, I truly feel like Greta Gerwig produced a really nice performance here. Many of the other characters also gave good performances alongside her. I have already mentioned that I appreciated the filmmaking style employed, even if it came off every now and then in much the same way the film’s characters did. Finally, the actual storyline, minus the cutesiness, was actually well-plotted and highly relevant to our times. As someone within that age range of the main characters, I appreciate the take on the struggles of this period and its own era of discovery and finding out oneself.

Frances Ha, ultimately, is a good movie, but too far up its own self and too full of itself to fully enjoy as it should be. It’s gotten rave reviews, I can see why, and I’m glad I watched it, but I will definitely not be watching it again.